B y Derek Liebig
Washington County officials are weighing whether they should rescind a local law that restricts where convicted sex offenders are allowed to live and might give local residents an opportunity to voice their opinion at a public hearing.
The Public Safety Committee voted 4-2 in favor of presenting a resolution to the Board of Supervisors to vote on holding a public hearing on the local law.
Richard “Geezer” Gordon was one of one of two supervisors who voted against (Fort Ann Supervisor Gail Hall was the other) putting forth a motion to vote on a public hearing.
“I think we should keep the law as it is. I’m not in favor of rescinding it,” Gordon said.
Gordon went on to add that each situation should be taken on case by case basis, stating that he believed the strict restrictions were a good idea for level 3 offenders, the highest risk offenders.
The local law prohibits convicted sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility, park, playground, youth center, swimming area, library, or any facility operated by the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, or the Washington County Chapter of NYSARC.
Opponents of the law have argued that it makes it nearly impossible to find a place to live, especially in smaller communities.
“You take a small town, like Whitehall, and draw a 1,000 foot circle around every church and playground in the village and there are not a lot of places left where they can live,” Washington County Attorney Roger Wickes said.
Many offenders are forced to move outside of the village where there isn’t as much affordable housing or public services.
“The problem comes that the local law is so much more restrictive that it limits the accessibility to affordable housing and generally speaking, the most affordable housing is located within villages,” Washington County Social Services commissioner Tammy DeLorme said.
This often results in the county having to use motels as housing for sex offenders until they can find affordable housing, such as the Budget Inn on Route 4.
According to Family Watchdog, a link on the Whitehall Police Department’s website, there are currently three sex offenders living at the motel and another dozen living elsewhere in the community. There are only three other sex offenders living in motels in the entire county.
All told, there are 223 sex offenders in the county.
Wickes said the current law was put on the books in 2007 following its passage elsewhere, including neighboring Warren and Saratoga Counties.
“At the time everyone had a similar law and because of that there was a fear that convicted sex offenders would move into the area,” he said.
However, the law has recently come under fire in several counties and faced a number of legal battles.
“The law has been struck down everywhere it’s been challenged including everywhere around Washington County, besides Warren County,” Wickes said. “We’ve also been named a defendant in a lawsuit which is part of the reason (the supervisors) are reconsidering the law.”
Wickes is concerned for the county’s exposure to attorney fees, especially considering they are the fifth county that has been sued and the attorney in the case may seek monies because of number of times they’ve litigated the case.
According to Wickes, seventeen counties throughout New York State have similar laws, and eight have been overturned.
Saratoga County was the latest county to have their law overturned by a judge’s decision.
In the case, Judge Jerry Scarano ruled that the state law supercedes the county law, a rationale that has been used in other rulings.
“The courts have said that the state law pre-empted the laws at the county level. That’s been the basis of their argument and no one has challenged it,” Wickes said.
Other counties that have similar laws overturned include Nassau, Putnam, Schenectady, Schuyler, Albany, Renesselaer and Rockland.
Of the eight counties where the law has been overturned, not one has appealed the decision.
“You can draw your own conclusions based on that but I think it’s pretty telling. As a lawyer if you think you can win, you would try and overturn it,” Wickes said.
If any county covered by the 3rd Judicial Department of the Supreme Court Appellate Division (which includes Washington, Saratoga and Warren counties) appealed the rulings and won, the law would have been upheld, but that has not happened to date.
The law also creates an additional burden on other agencies and departments at the county level, officials said.
Washington County Undersheriff Matthew Mabb said the department sometimes has to send an officer to a location to determine if it satisfies the current law.
Anthony White, Washington County probation officer said the law sometimes has the effect of driving offenders underground which can make them harder to supervise or oversee their treatment.
He also cited studies that show the inability to find housing can cause stress to the offender which makes they more likely to re-offend.
Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks said the supervisors are trying to determine whether they should be proactive or reactive to any potential challenges to the law. They have the choice of reacting to any potential legal decision or potentially changing the law before anything can happen.
The board is expected to vote on the resolution to set the public hearing at their next meeting on Aug. 19, the meeting would likely be set for September.